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The Sunday Sandwich (That’s a Wrap)

It’s Sunday and that means that another hectic week in Australian politics has passed with all its highs and lows, its angry words and policy announcements and legislative discussions. The week was punctuated by two main events, the passage of the Private Health Insurance Rebate means testing, a legislative win at least for Labor and the ALP leadership tensions seemingly heading toward a booming crescendo. Parliament also sat for the week and also proved far from uneventful.

The Gillard Government and its Health Minister managed to negotiate enough votes for the passage of means testing for the Private Health Insurance Rebate. This issue has seemingly split sections of the community and the two major parties no less, with Tony Abbott pledging he would reinstate the rebate for all as soon as possible upon election of a Coalition Government.

Parliament sat for the second week in a row, the first sitting period of the year and has again proved to be a full on affair with some changes affecting the complexion of Question Time. Questions must now be 3o seconds and answers no more than 3 minutes, a helpful change that should be added to as parliament progresses under the new Speaker, Peter Slipper.

Regardless of the changes, the usual bad behaviour continued, with Ministers, including the Prime Minister repeatedly cautioned to be “directly relevant” to the question asked. There was also no let-up from interjections across the chamber and a number of Coalition MPs found themselves having a coffee break during Question Time. A few ALP MPs also faced the same early afternoon tea courtesy of the new lower tolerance for interjections from the new Speaker.

Questions over the Labor leadership also permeated the week and on Saturday reached fever pitch with allegations in the press that senior Ministers were actually testing the waters for a potential Rudd spill in the coming weeks. The longer the speculation goes, the more pain it will cause the ALP and the more terminal the government will become.

The week has undoubtedly been a dramatic one with both legislation and leadership tensions dominating the week in the parliament and outside of it. The leadership tensions are becoming all the more real and almost tangible and they will surely continue to play out over the coming week, even in the absence of the key player, Kevin Rudd who heads overseas again, though this could provide opportunity for supporters to do their work. The parliament has risen after two weeks, but there will be little cooling of the political discourse which has only really just begun for the year and don’t forget, the Gonski review into education funding will also be released this week, but likely overshadowed by terminal leadership tensions.

You get the feeling that the coming week will not be like an ordinary non-parliamentary sitting week and that doesn’t bode well for the Labor Government.

Bill of Rights, Yes We Can and Must, But Likely When We Become a Republic

In the Australian political discourse there are calls, from time to time, about whether or not Australia is in need of a Bill of Rights, whether it be enshrined in the Constitution of Australia or its own legislative instrument. We need a Bill of Rights, but it is likely that any move for such a protection of rights will not come on its own, but in conjunction with a future Australian republic and that is most certainly a great deal of time away from materialising.

Australia is in urgent need of a Bill of Rights, constitutional or otherwise to defend all the basic rights and freedoms which must be afforded to all human beings. Not only that, Australia needs such legal provisions to clearly express those rights which at the moment are implied or form part of the common law of the Commonwealth of Australia. Too often, because the rights we are supposed to enjoy are either implied or in common law, there is not a clear understanding of the extent to which they apply.
As I have already expressed, there are two forms that a rights bill may take, that is constitutional and legislative.
A constitutional Bill of Rights entails those basic rights and freedoms we should all experience in a liberal democracy being enshrined in the Australian Constitution. This would require a constitutional referendum where a majority of people in a majority of the states and territories vote in favour of putting rights and freedoms into our constitution.
A legislative Bill of Rights is exactly as it sounds, a piece of legislation that is passed by the parliament of the day, requiring a simple majority of parliamentarians to vote in favour of it becoming law.
The question then becomes: what form should a future Bill of Rights take? My answer, is that any future rights bill must be enshrined in our Constitution. Why is this the case? Because, like any form of law made by parliament, a legislative rights bill could indeed be rescinded for any reason, of which none are valid and therefore parliament could erode our collective rights at their whim if they chose to do so.
Now, a constitutional version of a rights bill is not without its downside either, though the downside is indeed both a positive and a negative. Because a constitutional referendum requires a majority of people in a majority of states to pass, it would be incredibly difficult to have a successful referendum (8/44 referenda have passed). However, as I said, that is also the positive, our politicians could not vote a constitutional Bill of Rights down and the people are unlikely to vote out something which they helped institute in the first place.
Now this is where it becomes tricky for the idea of a Bill of Rights to be enshrined in our Constitution any time soon. Because a constitutional rights bill is much more robust, the best chance of it passing at a referendum, would not be under its own steam as a stand-alone move. A human rights bill, forming part of our Constitution, would best be linked to a future Australian republican referendum where it would be almost certain that we would adopt an entirely new Australian Constitution.
Consequently, a new Australian Constitution, complete with human rights protections will most likely be some time away. With an ALP Government, usually strongly committed to a republic, no longer publicly talking about the idea and still two years from election and the would be next Liberal Party Prime Minister a monarchist, by my calculation, a republic and therefore Bill of Rights is inevitable but at least 10 years away.
I don’t think we can or should wait that long. The question is: can you wait? If not, get loud and get talking about it…

A Republic: To Be Or Not To Be? The Right Question Is When…

There is no doubt that the impending visit of Queen Elizabeth II will on some level stir up debate on whether or not Australia should, in the near future, sever her ties with the Commonwealth and the monarchy. The republic vs  monarchy debate has faded into the background of the Australian political discourse since the 1999 referendum on Australia becoming a republic. Now, with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting next week and the visit of Her Majesty the Queen, who may be coming toward the end of her reign, the debate has reared its head again.Since the republican referendum of 1999 under John Howard, there has been little or not forthright expression of the need to break away from the ties of monarchy. Indeed, at best in the last 4 to 5 years it has gained minor attention through the statements of our politicians, mostly paying lip service to the idea of Australia becoming a republic in the near or foreseeable future.

It is almost inevitable, that in the life-time of my generation, we will see Australia become a republic. This will not happen under the current Government and would likely not even figure in the agenda of a future Abbott Government, being the staunch monarchist that he is.

A reason for the status quo staying the way that it is at present, with a constitutional monarchy and a part in the Commonwealth, is that the situation at present is not altogether different from that of the situation Australia would find itself in as a republic. We are no longer a colony or colonies striving for at least partial independence from the United Kingdom, we have our own set of laws which we as a nation have made and a Governor-General representing the Queen. We also no longer have a final right of appeal to the Privy Council in the UK.

Furthermore, we do not just trade with Commonwealth countries. As a nation we have a wide array of trading arrangements with a variety of nations across the globe. So independence would not have any foreseeable fiscal benefits as such.

On the other hand, a republic could be the time and opportunity to bring in something that we do not have as yet, a Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights would guarantee citizens have all the basic human rights enshrined in law, rather than for them to be implied in the Constitution or in our laws.

Further, becoming a republic would also be a good time to recognise our indigenous Australians, the first people of our nation Australia. Whilst symbolic, coupled with real policy work and assistance, this could help lift some indigenous people out of poverty.

It is probably the right thing to wait until the end of the reign of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth, to really discuss whether or not it is an urgent priority to become a republic. Limited differences between the status quo and Australia becoming a republic are what is holding the republican movement back. The republican movement need to begin to mobilise louder and stronger in selling the differences between monarchy and a republic.

It looks likely that a vote on a republic could be as long as 10 to 15 years away at the present rate of movement and taking into account the political realities at present in Australia. The reign of Queen Elizabeth also seems a major factor in the timing of a future referendum, with both sides seemingly shy now to debate the issue with vigour while the Queen remains in power. Having a republic over the status quo does have some major benefits for all Australians and specifically also for the forgotten minorities. It will not impact on the overall wealth of the nation or our trading relationships in a positive or negative way. The question remains, would you want to wait up to 10-15 years for a republic? Some time around then, it is bound to happen.

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